Hebrew Academy of Cleveland President Dr. Louis Malcmacher reflects on the year gone by since the petirah of his friend and inspiration, philanthropist Mendy Klein z”l
Thursday marks one year from the day the Torah world was shaken by the sudden passing of Mendy Klein z”l. The Cleveland-based philanthropist who supported yeshivos, schools, the needy, kids at risk, and so many others had collapsed and passed away with no prior warning, leaving a gaping hole in the fabric of the community. The pain is still raw for those who were touched by him during his lifetime, and the void left by his passing is still profoundly sensed.
Dr. Louis Malcmacher, president of Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, lost more than just a dear friend that day. To him, Mendy was an integral part of his life, inspiring him and helping him shape his own relationship with avodas haklal.
Dr. Malcmacher lived in the same neighborhood, often davened in the same shul, and sat next to Mendy at seudah shlishis for a number of years. The Malcmachers and the Kleins would often vacation together, and on many Shabbos afternoons they would take a Shabbos walk together.
They were also partners in many projects that pertained to the tzibbur.
“Mendy and I were very close friends, and we would naturally have many conversations about personal matters,” Dr. Malcmacher reminisces. “But every conversation would drift to inyonei klal. That was his main focus.”
Mendy served as his role model in how to do chesed, never satisfied with merely making a donation.
“There was nothing that he was not involved in. And involved is really too shallow of a word to use for Mendy. When he was busy with something, it was with his whole heart and soul. Mendy did not just give money to individuals or institutions and then forget about them. He would exert time and energy into trying to improve the situations beyond the simple monetary donation.
“It was not that he would try to influence decisions with his personal opinions,” Dr. Malcmacher explains. “To the contrary, he greatly respected the mission of each organization. But he would never stop thinking how the mission could be fulfilled in the most effective manner. As a result, much of the chesed and tzedakah done in Cleveland bore the stamp of Mendy’s creativity.”
He mentions just two examples of Mendy’s influence on the city’s chesed landscape.
“Mendy was instrumental in the city’s matan beseiser, secret charities. He built up Gesher, a government program guidance system that he molded after Lakewood’s LRRC, which helped local residents access millions of dollars in aid that they would otherwise not have known they were entitled to. And there were so many others.”
He credits Mendy with shaping Cleveland into the Torah-rich city that it is today.
“He singlehandedly built up Cleveland, with an incredible drive to build kollelim. His devotion to the task changed the face of Cleveland, making it a desired destination for bnei Torah. Imagine taking 50 or 60 kollel yungerleit and dropping them into a community. It would change the community entirely. That’s what Mendy did.
“He strongly supported Kollel Yad Chaim Mordechai, under the leadership of Rav Yaakov Velvel Katz, and he subsequently became the driving force in the founding of the Hebrew Academy Kollel. He was also instrumental in the growth of Kollel Nachlas Yaakov, led by Rav Yakov Sonnenschein, and many others.”
Dr. Malcmacher pauses to mention Mendy’s wife, Ita, and their children and spouses, Yoni and Shoshi Klein, Amir and Edna Jaffa, Nati and Chanie Klein, and Shmueli and Dina Halpern.
“They were full partners in Mendy’s chesed. Everything he did was in conjunction with his aishes chayil and with the support of their children.”
Dr. Malcmacher stresses how Mendy never wanted to be a one-man-show, always wishing for others to join him in his holy work.
“It’s very common for people to want the attention when they give so much. Mendy was the complete opposite. He didn’t want his name mentioned. Although he was often the main askan in projects, he always wanted others to get involved as well.”
Dr. Malcmacher relates that he wrote an article about Mendy in the Yated after his friend’s petirah, and someone from Toronto subsequently approached him and commented that he had never heard of Mendy previously. Dr. Malcmacher was ecstatic.
“I told him, ‘You have just made Mendy’s neshomah so happy in Shomayim.’ That was his true goal – to get things done without people knowing who he was.”
Mendy would also always advocate for younger people to get involved in klal work, noting that the burden would fall on them some day to continue the avodas hakodesh.
“In fact, at the last board meeting of the Hebrew Academy he attended, just days prior to his petirah, Mendy remarked how grateful he was that so many young people had attended the meeting,” Dr. Malcmacher recalls.
When some of the younger residents of Cleveland wanted to start a Chaveirim organization in the city, Mendy was a staunch supporter.
“We had a deal. I would give some money, and he of course would give much more,” he recalls with a chuckle. “That is how they bought their digital radio equipment.”
Dr. Malcmacher notes how Mendy’s attitude towards his affluence was unique, as he never saw it as a cause for superiority.
“‘This money is not my money. Hashem gave it to me for a reason,’ Mendy would always say. That was always his outlook.”
Mendy’s perspective was evident in how he carried himself.
“He had no shtoltz. He was completely approachable by anyone,” Dr. Malcmacher attests. “If you would see him in the airport, you would think he was just a typical, regular guy, carrying his own bag and not standing out in any way. This was possibly because he himself once struggled financially, and he never forgot where he came from. It was this that allowed him to relate to anyone, from the greatest roshei yeshiva to the simplest Jew.”
When Mendy first went to Cleveland, he had wanted to send his children to Hebrew Academy, but he was not able to afford the tuition costs. He met with Rabbi Nochum Zev Dessler zt”l, who told him that the school never turned kids away because of financial limitations and that his children were welcome to attend. At that point, Mendy turned to Rabbi Dessler and made a promise. ‘Rabbi, one day I will pay you back every single penny.’
“I don’t think many people would have made that statement,” Dr. Malcmacher muses. “Most probably would have said thank you and moved on. But Mendy said it. And when Mendy made a promise, he always meant it.”
There was another unique trait that Mendy possessed, Dr. Malcmacher shares.
“Many askanim like to orchestrate public affairs but are hesitant to get involved with individuals. Mendy was involved with the nitty-gritty details of people’s lives. If someone turned to him for help, he was always happy to help, no matter who that person was. There were so many individuals who have come forward since his petirah to share that Mendy has helped them through their personal issues, whether with legal troubles, kids at risk, or anything else.
“If there was a kid at risk who wanted to talk to him, everything else became unimportant and he would devote his full attention to the situation at hand. This was in addition to his immense support of Amudim. He never saw his work for the klal as a reason not to personally help a yochid.”
“And this was someone who was running a massive business of his own,” he adds. “Nevertheless, he still had time for everyone else.”
Dr. Malcmacher relates how he would receive emails from Mendy at all times of the night. He recalls once getting an email from Mendy at 6 a.m., after which Mendy went to take a short nap before starting his day.
“I believe he had more than 24 hours in his day. That would be the only explanation to how he was able to accomplish so much.”
The passion Mendy felt for chesed and tzedakah was truly supernatural.
“He had an unfathomable sense of achrayus for the community,” Dr. Malcmacher relates. “He was deeply dedicated to so many organizations, especially the Hebrew Academy, yet when something new came up, he was always involved. There were times when certain organizations were undergoing serious financial difficulties, and Mendy was the only one brave enough to step in. But remarkably, he would not deduct from his financial support to the other mosdos even though he was funneling tremendous sums to those desperate organizations. Never did any project suffer when he undertook something new. He had the widest shoulders of anyone I knew.”
Mendy always held rabbonim in the highest regard, and he forged personal relationships with roshei yeshiva from around the globe. When Rav Yitzchok Scheiner would visit Cleveland, he would sleep in the Klein home. Mendy would personally tend to him, preparing his meals and standing by to assist him. There were others who could have taken care of the trivialities, but Mendy insisted on doing it himself.
Dr. Malcmacher relates a personal anecdote that occurred on one of Rav Scheiner’s trips to Cleveland.
Dr. Malcmacher was in the midst of talking to Mendy and the conversation turned philosophical. They pondered if their mission in life was indeed to be involved in tzorchei haklal or perhaps they were really destined for other fields. Since Rav Scheiner was scheduled to come to Cleveland the following week, Mendy suggested that they present their quandary to him. Dr. Malcmacher agreed, but he added that he already knew what Rav Scheiner would answer, as he had asked him this question many years earlier.
“I told Mendy that I had visited Rav Scheiner with my chaver, Mr. Gary Torgow of Detroit, years before and asked this question. Rav Scheiner had quoted three words that we say on Rosh Hashanah during Zichronos: ‘maasei ish ufkudaso – man’s actions and his mission.’ Rav Scheiner had said that we can learn the mission of a man based on his actions, and we can surmise that someone who is involved in klal work indeed was destined for such a mission.”
Mendy immediately looked at Dr. Malcmacher and declared, in his typical fashion, “I will donate $5,000 to Hebrew Academy if that is indeed his answer.”
The following week, the two approached Rav Scheiner and Dr. Malcmacher laid out the question. Before Rav Scheiner had a chance to answer, Mendy eagerly blurted out the words, “Maasei ish ufkudaso.”
Rav Scheiner looked up and asked, “Oh, did I already tell you that vort?” Mendy responded that he had heard it from Dr. Malcmacher. Rav Scheiner responded that this was his intended answer.
At that point, Dr. Malcmacher interjected. He explained to the rosh yeshiva that Mendy had pledged money if he would say that answer, and now it seemed that Mendy had jumped ahead, as Rav Scheiner never actually said the answer.
Rav Scheiner smiled and pointed at Mendy perceptively. “You don’t have to worry about him,” he said. “He’ll make good on his promise to give you the money!”
Dr. Malcmacher concludes with a reflective tone, cherishing the memory of his friend who had made an indelible impression on every aspect of his life.
“They say that you don’t really appreciate people until they are gone. This was so pronounced with Mendy. We always appreciated him, but it has grown a hundredfold since his passing.
“People ask me if a day goes by without me thinking about Mendy. In truth, I don’t think an hour goes by without me, and so many others I know, thinking about Mendy. He would push us and inspire us in how to do chesed. So many times each day, I stop and think: What would Mendy have done now? He would no doubt maximize this opportunity for chesed. Am I doing it as well as he would have?”
He recalls the words of Mendy’s son Yoni, iterated during the levayah.
“No one said it more eloquently than his son: ‘Hashem gave a matanah to Klal Yisroel and his name was Mendy Klein.’ He was indeed a gift.
“His memory and impact are still so fresh, even though it is a year later. We think about him so much and we really need him now more than ever. But in our hearts, driving us, we will always have Mendy Klein.”